Uncle Tom’s Cabin is a very bad novel, having, in its self-righteous, virtuous sentimentality, much in common with Little Women. Sentimentality, the ostentatious parading of excessive and spurious emotion, is the mark of dishonesty, the inability to feel; the wet eyes of the sentimentalist betray his aversion to experience, his fear of life, his arid heart; and it is always, therefore, the signal of secret and violent inhumanity, the mask of cruelty.”—James Baldwin, “Everybody’s Protest Novel,” from Notes of a Native Son

When he was seventeen, James Baldwin began writing his great, autobiographical novel about growing up in Harlem, Go Tell it on the Mountain—today it might be sold as a memoir—and would publish it after more than ten years of effort. A couple years later he wrote America’s greatest essay, for my money, which appeared in November 1955 in its first incarnation in Harper’s Magazine as “Me and My House . . .” and became the title essay of Notes of a Native Son. I quoted above from the book’s first essay because it pleases me how Baldwin struck at the sin of sentimentality with such vigor, precision, and beauty (as a boy he had reread Uncle Tom’s Cabin so obsessively his mother hid it from him; he knew its sins well).

Notes of a Native Son” opens with the funeral, on August 3,1943, of Baldwin’s stepfather, a Harlem preacher, the father of eight younger children—the last born on the day of his rites—a colorful, contumacious, and bitter patriarch. Baldwin, a gifted Pentecostal preacher himself when only fourteen, had by seventeen turned away from the pulpit and toward literature, a shift that exacerbated tensions with his difficult stepfather. Baldwin’s portrait of him is unforgettable:

“He was, I think, very handsome. Handsome, proud, and ingrown, “like a toenail,” somebody said. But he looked to me, as I grew older, like pictures I had seen of African tribal chieftans: he really should have been naked, with warpaint on and barbaric mementoes, standing among spears. He could be chilling in the pulpit and indescribably cruel in his personal life and he was certainly the most bitter man I have ever met; yet it must be said that there was something else buried in him, which lent him his tremendous power and, even, a rather crushing charm. It had something to do with his blackness, I think—he was very black—and his beauty, and the fact that he knew he was black but did not know he was beautiful.”

To write like that: the rhythms, the conversational yet elevated rounded diction, the hint of oratory, the punctuation—and that surprise at the end! The essay is famous for the soaring grandeur of its elegiac close:

“It began to seem that one would have to hold in the mind forever two ideas which seemed to be in opposition. The first idea was acceptance, the acceptance, totally without rancor, of life as it is, of men as they are. . . . [T]he second idea was of equal power: that one must never, in one’s own life, accept these injustices as commonplace but must fight them with all one’s strength. This fight begins, however, in the heart and now it had been laid to my charge to keep my own heart free of hatred and despair. This intimation made my heart heavy and, now that my father was irrecoverable, I wished that he had been beside me so that I could have searched his face for the answers which only the future would give me now.”

One pictures Baldwin rejoicing, or at least smiling all day, after writing that paragraph and especially its last line, a gift. Maybe he cried.

The essay is beautifully structured, opening with the funeral and returning to it after scenic flashbacks and exposition. Many students love it, and it teaches well, with two caveats. The first is that Baldwin writes so gorgeously that he gets away with much exposition—his essays are classical in that sense, meditations relying on voice, and far more rhetorical than his fiction. Second, like any masterpiece it can’t be pigeonholed. Does one tell students it’s a memoir or a personal essay? (This hair-splitting will puzzle non-teachers, but students struggle with telling apart these categories, and there is a worthy if subtle distinction.) “Notes of a Native Son” is poised between its subject—perhaps America’s greatest subject, race—and personal history, the story of a man embittered by white prejudice and of his rebellious stepson who fears that he has inherited that bitterness. For teaching purposes I currently call it a personal essay because, though it is a great memoir, Baldwin’s intent is to show the human burden of racism. He uses his own and his stepfather’s life to explore that much larger subject, and makes white prejudice real and its effect painfully clear.

For Vivian Gornick, who discusses the essay at length in The Situation and the Story, it is a “perfect bridge between the essay and the memoir,” both exploring a subject and defining a conflicted self. She notes its “powerful commonality” with Orwell’s “Shooting an Elephant,” which also pivots around race, interweaves the personal and political, and features a “murderous truth-speaking” and civilizing voice. Ultimately Baldwin’s essay is about the burden of being civilized, Gornick says, and he forges a form that in its content and expression becomes a civilizing instrument. “. . . Baldwin found he could be everything he had to be—rational, humane, and cutthroat—all at the same time,” she writes. “The narrator’s tone of voice is, in fact, the true subject of the piece.”

In the preface to Notes of a Native Son, Baldwin writes, “I want to be an honest man and a good writer.” As far as I can see, he was both. Until his death in 1987, during self-imposed exile in France, he was also close friends with one of my favorite writers, William Styron. Baldwin’s eloquent prose is much like Styron’s, a burnished, erudite King James Bible colloquialism, but perhaps even more elegant.

Fiction writer Cynthia Newberry Martin has an interesting new post about Baldwin, “Look Again,” with a link to Baldwin’s Paris Review interview, on her blog Catching Days.

Baldwin wrote in longhand, on yellow legal pads, and at night, beginning after dinner and continuing until three or four o’clock in the morning, he told The Paris Review. “When you’re writing,” he said, “you’re trying to find out something you don’t know. The whole language of writing for me is finding out what you don’t want to know, what you don’t want to find out. But something forces you to anyway. . . . ”

“I don’t know what technique is. All I know is you have to make the reader see it. I got this from Dostoyevsky, from Balzac. . . . Every form [fiction and nonfiction] is difficult, no one is easier than another. They all kick your ass.”

2 Comments

  • cynthia says:

    Richard, wonderful post on Baldwin. As I mentioned, I’ve put this essay on my list, but it’s good to have a little taste of it now. Thanks for the link too.

    I’ve always written to figure out what I had to say, but I hadn’t experienced until recently the small but significant difference between that and what Baldwin writes here: “When you’re writing,” he said, “you’re trying to find out something you don’t know.”

  • Thanks, Cynthia. I love that point he makes, too, about the imperative of discovering your material. It’s interesting too that he goes beyond that to advocate discovering what you don’t want to know.

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